Beyond Dongdaemun History and Culture Park Station, away from the hideous alien monstrosity that has replaced Dongdaemun Stadium, lies a largely undiscovered piece of multicultural Seoul: Little Russia.
There are Mongolian textile shops, Uzbek travel agents and Russian minimarts selling vodka, caviar and pickled beets. Though many of the denizens look Korean, they speak a polyphony of Central Asian and Eastern European languages: Russian, Ukrainian, Tajik, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uzbek and Mongolian. In fact, most residents of Little Russia are not Russian at all, but come from former Soviet states once dominated by the Eurasian nation. It’s exotic but not overly so — like the French community in Sorae or Chinatown in Daelim, you always know you are in Korea.
Walking around is fun for the people watching, but the real reason to come here is for the food. We took a Korean, a New Zealander, two Americans and a Russo-Ukrainian guide to try out three of Little Russia’s restaurants; what we got was an afternoon of reasonably priced culinary joy and a few insights on the area’s surprising authenticity.
Garlic, pepper and old-fashioned charm
Samarqand, named after the historic city in Uzbekistan, is probably the most famous of the Little Russia restaurants. “You can smell it from down the street and it smells incredible,” said Sonja Butler, one of our American friends.
We ordered three types of shashlik, or grilled meat on skewers, which is the restaurant’s specialty: two lamb, two beef and two minced beef.
The food came with pickled carrots and onion, something our Korean friend, Wayne Jeong, thought Koreans would appreciate. “I believe Koreans will love this. Garlic, pepper — good combination.”
The lamb was especially popular. “The garlic hits you first, along with the rich, buttery lamb flavor,” Butler said with a mouthful of lamb. “It’s quickly followed by a quick punch of cumin. The meat is exceptionally well cooked and tender.”
James Wright, our other American, agreed, hailing the lamb as “perfectly cooked, way better than the Chinese anything in your district. Amazing marinade — juicy, not overpowering. Very savory.”
The minced beef was well marinated in a rich brown sauce with onions and garlic. On its own, the meat was a bit chewy, but like all shashlik, the creamy tomato and dill dipping sauce is needed for the full experience –– after a quick dip, the meat had a balanced, clean taste.
The waitress, a Tajik student, was pleasant and attentive, and the restaurant was very pretty inside. Looking around, Jeong pointed out, “I like it here because the customers are mixed with foreigners and locals. The interior is a bit old-fashioned, but I think it is what it is.”
Want fries with that plov?
Directly down the street from Samarqand is My Friend, a spacious old restaurant with a disco ball hanging from the ceiling, a TV playing Russian documentaries in the background and a beefy Uzbek-Korean waiter who said the customers are very eclectic and international — mostly Russians and Central Asians, like himself. We ordered borscht, salad, beef stroganoff and plov (a kind of rice pilaf).
Stepping outside tradition, our table ordered fries with the beef stroganoff instead of mashed potatoes, and this proved to be a great choice: The beef was soft and tender, the fries crispy and our plov, served alongside, was tasty too. The yellow rice with chunks of well-marinated lamb and a bit of cumin was enjoyed by most of the group, but Jeong thought it was a bit dry and in need of more flavor. The side salad was made with cucumber, tomato and onions, and seasoned with dill, paprika and chili flakes. “Lovely and bright,” Butler said. “Very fresh.”
The borscht, however, was another issue. Though everyone agreed it tasted good — some thought it was excellent — there was universal disgust when the bowl came topped with mayonnaise instead of sour cream. It can traditionally be served both ways in Russia (it’s apparently a matter of personal taste), but we were all clearly on the losing side of that argument. We ate our fill and washed it down with a quarter liter of Siberian Five Lakes vodka. That seemed to help smooth things over.
A walk on the nuanced side
Gostiny Dvor was our last stop. Located above a minimart where you can get all kinds of Baltika beers (see info box for more), not to mention bras, cheese and secondhand Russian novels, Gostiny Dvor looks like your Russian grandmother’s dining room. There are white tablecloths with paper doilies, heavy polished silverware and a big television (the same Russian chainsaw commercial came on at least three times during our sitting). We ordered akrorha, salanka and myaso po-kapitanski, all of which were new and different to us.
Akrorha is a yogurt-based cold summer soup with cucumber, dill, green onions, potato, egg and, most noticeably, ham: in Wright’s words, “potato salad in a soup.” Though it was tasty and refreshing in the heat, the strong-tasting ham overwhelmed the other flavors when you got a bite of it — still, a bit of an adventure all the same.
The salanka turned out to be a hot soup, similar to borscht, with sausage, carrot, green onions, olives, sour cream and lemon. This one was dubbed “a sandwich in a soup” by our group. It was tasty, but the next dish was even better: myaso po-kapitanski (literally meaning “captain’s meat”). This pork, cheese, potato and chive mashup looked like a deconstructed shepherd’s pie and tasted extra hearty, with the “awesome” verdict being handed out by all.
Butler felt that overall the food at Gostiny Dvor was more subtle, and that everything was a bit more nuanced and balanced compared to the other restaurants. “This is more a place to have a nice meal,” she explained, “not where you would go to get drunk.”
“I like the ambience here,” Jeong said. “Very classic.” It could have used individual dinnerware sets, though, as everyone was reaching over everyone else to dig into the communal plates.
Tatiana Babaskina, our guide for the day, found herself pleasantly surprised by the quality of our meal. She’s lived in Seoul for 15 years — splitting her time between Korea and London for the last six — and gave us a crash course in Russian food while we supped.
“A normal Russian meal is served in three courses,” she explained. “A hot soup (usually borscht or shchi) as the first course, meat with either potatoes or macaroni as the second course and finally tea or a fruit (kompot) drink with dessert as the last course.” The food in Little Russia was, she said, “saltier and more authentically Russian than what I’m normally used to. Living in Korea, I started ‘Koreanizing’ my Russian meals, adding more spices and using different vegetables for preparing certain meals, like making borscht with tomatoes instead of beets.” But here, she got the real stuff.
“I think most Koreans don’t know about Russian food at all,” Jeong said. “It was my first time, but it tasted very good –– there was nothing weird. I’d like to come to this area again with my Korean friends.”
A good idea would be to visit sooner rather than later, while the experience is still authentic.
Baltika Breweries is the largest beer maker in Russia, and their beers are available throughout Little Russia. Each bottle has a large number printed on the label — you purchase them by asking for that number, but the numbers don’t represent alcohol content. Here’s what each one means:
#3: Classic lager, 4.8%. A basic pale lager, a little better than mass-produced Korean beer.
#4: Original, 5.6%. A red/brown beer, similar to a honey brown. This was the favorite for most of us.
#6: Porter, 7%. A very dark and strong porter, but crisper than most black beers.
#7: Lager Export, 5.4%. A pale lager that is virtually tasteless. Probably our least favorite.
#8: Wheat, 5%. Like a Hoegaarden or similar weizen beer, though a little less citrusy.
#9: Strong lager, 8%. A powerful lager with a clean, strong taste. Be careful with this one.
As for the other numbers, there is no #1, and #0 (a nonalcoholic beer) and #2 (pale) are not commonly found in Korea.
Samarqand and My Friend are on the same street, outside Dongdaemun History and Culture Park Station, exit 5. From street level, turn right and cross the little street, then take a left on Gwanghuidong 1(il)-ga. You’ll see both restaurants.
To get to Gostiny Dvor, walk out exit 7 of the same station and double back to the right. The restaurant is down the first alley on the left.